What does it say when a fledgling business ignores the universally acknowledged three most important words in real estate?
That the owners are young and relatively inexperienced? Short on cash? Rather sure of themselves?
Sam Fertik and Aaron Nemani freely admit to all the above. They can’t help being just 24 (as is their sous chef, Terry Greco) or unable to afford the soaring rents in Jersey City’s über-hip downtown dining scene near City Hall and the Hudson River. But their faith in their own skills, talent and work ethic does not strike me as misplaced.
At $150 per person for a 10-course tasting menu (includes sparkling or still water, coffee, tax and tip), an evening at the Orange and Olive Chef’s Table—their spacious, gracious and delicious five-month-old BYO—will not attract much walk-in business in Jersey City’s blue-collar Heights, which overlooks Hoboken, about a mile west of the river.
You can pay more, less or about the same for equally sophisticated degustations in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia. But it’s hard to think of another tasting experience in the region as intimate, relaxed and uniquely enjoyable as the unrushed 2-½ hours you will spend with Fertik and Nemani personally at your service.
“It’s a welcome-to-my-world kind of thing,” Fertik told me in a phone call after my visits. The storefront doubles as HQ and kitchen of Orange and Olive Caterers, the partners’ true bread and butter, launched in 2011. The interior, which he and Nemani designed and largely built themselves, is simple and serviceable, hip in a rustic way but far from any conventional notion of $150-a-plate luxury. The kitchen is open, not just in an architectural sense. Stand near the chef as he works, pepper him with questions, take pictures, kibbitz. It’s all good. “I wouldn’t have built the restaurant,” Fertik said, “if I wasn’t willing to let you see everything.”
There is just one table, a 17-foot pine beauty that the chef and his girlfriend’s father built from unfinished planks schlepped from Home Depot. It seats up to 20, but the partners like to hold attendance to about 12 so everyone can sit facing the kitchen, with no one’s view obstructed. They themselves serve the food.
The Chef’s Table is a bit like sitting at a sushi bar. It’s easy to converse with the person on either side of you, less so with those a few seats away. (Then again, talking with someone on the other side of a round table for six or eight isn’t always a picnic.) In my experience, only David Chang’s masterful Momofuku Ko in Manhattan’s East Village (essentially a counter with 12 seats) offers a closer view of chefs doing their intricate work. But good luck striking up a conversation with the Ko maestro intently assembling your plate. And don’t try to snap even a phone photo of the dish he sets before you. I was reprimanded for doing just that.
O+O is novel in other ways. Even if you wanted to walk in, you can’t. You must buy a “ticket” online (from one seat to a full table) using a credit card. The payoff, so to speak, comes at the end, when you hug, kiss, shake hands and simply stroll into Central Avenue’s neon jangle. No bill is presented. Really nice if the evening is a gift.
Fertik changes the menu roughly every three weeks, tweaking dishes as inspiration and seasonal opportunity strike. Everyone receives the same 10 courses plus little extras, so there are no choices to make (a plus or minus, depending on your point of view). But the chef happily accommodates dietary restrictions.
Fertik’s flavors are varied and vivid, his combinations unfailingly modern. So are his presentations. In my two visits, the starter—diced, raw Scottish salmon belly—arrived in a tiny, teepee-shaped white tagine. A bit precious, perhaps, but the unctuousness of the sparklingly fresh fish was accented by barely visible lemon zest and minced shallots, and brilliantly offset in color and taste by a thick, tangy-sweet beet gastrique. Nearly as memorable was the second course, a skewer of raw hamachi wrapped around a swipe of black (fermented) garlic sauce. I’d have liked an extra swipe of that seductive purée. Indeed, I wanted more of all Fertik’s sauces, intensified by patient detailing. Take the black garlic—sweet soy sauce, mirin, ginger, lemongrass, honey and lime juice are the uncredited bit players in its star turn.
Molecular gastronomy may be moribund as a movement, but Fertik, like most young chefs, has sifted through the pretentious presto-chango for the materials and techniques meaningful to him.
A perfect example of what is now called modernist cuisine is Fertik’s 62-degree-Celsius egg. Its creaminess and uncanny, uncracked shape can spoil you for raggedy poached or soft-boiled, but that’s just part of its sensuous appeal. After an hour in an immersion circulator at 144 degrees Fahrenheit, the shimmery globe is removed from its shell with an ingeniously simple mechanical tool. Fertik will let you video the process. (Not for him Walter Bagehot’s famous 1867 advice to the British crown, “We must not let in daylight upon magic.”) On one of my visits, the egg was placed on buttery leeks in a truffle-and-white-wine sabayon (zabaglione in a beret). On top went a zigzag of duck-skin crackling and a twist of cracked black pepper. Good thing everybody got one. I wouldn’t have shared a spoonful.
Two other marvels were Fertik’s crisp yet incredibly tender skate with lightly crunchy sea beans and basil sauce; and his cylinder of rabbit loin cooked sous vide in buttermilk and thyme, dipped in whole-grain mustard and egg, rolled in parsley breadcrumbs and sautéed in clarified butter. There were no revelations in rosemary-roasted rack of lamb, but the meat was so good none were needed.
An East Brunswick native (like Nemani, his friend since kindergarten), Fertik has always wanted to be a chef.
“After my bar mitzvah,” he told me, “my parents called the caterer and said, ‘Our son wants a job.’ They laughed, but said okay. Four months later, they sent me and a helper to run a 150-person wedding at Barnegat Light firehouse.”
After graduating from the CIA in 2009, Fertik, then 19, became executive chef of Tula, a New American bistro in New Brunswick. He bounced between restaurants and catering until he and Nemani scraped together $1,500 to launch Orange and Olive Caterers.
“Most caterers don’t take the time to work with you to plan everything from start to finish,” Fertik said. “We wanted to put as much restaurant feel as possible into the catering world. In our first full year, we had $200,000 in sales and more than that booked for our second year.”
Last year, wanting to be close to New York, they began seeking permanent space in downtown Jersey City. In the end, the Heights was not only cheaper, but to Fertik’s mind, “edgy and different.”
“I didn’t want to work in a s—hole again,” he said. “Good food comes from a good kitchen. We wanted customers to say, ‘This is your kitchen? Wow!’”
That achieved, they began to offer cooking classes and onsite cocktail parties. The next step was Chef’s Table.
Come hungry, not famished. Portion sizes walk a tightrope, without a net (i.e. bread). To sop up the scrumptious ooze of the 62-degree egg, I asked for some. Fertik charmingly declined. “I don’t ever want to overdo anything,” he explained later. “I’ve had tastings where I left feeling sick from too much food. I try to go by Thomas Keller’s philosophy: ‘I want you to want just one more bite.’”
When I finished Fertik’s richly pleasing frozen chocolate dessert, I wanted not just one more bite, but one more dessert, ideally a contrasting one. “We’re brainstorming a fruit dessert, but I haven’t come up with anything I’m happy with yet,” he said. “I understand that wish for indulgence and luxury. It’s not what we do, but we’ll get there. It’s an evolution.”
Meanwhile, the founders are having fun. “I’d open 10 nights a week if I had the demand,” Fertik said. With a few tweaks, he just might get close.